The Way of the Heart
Parkminster United Church – Sunday, October 16, 2022
Over the summer I read The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. This is the true story of Will and his mother, Mary Anne, who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close. In the book, Mary Anne confesses that she always reads the end of a book first. So, I have a question for you this morning. When you’re reading a book, do you sneak a peek at the book’s ending before you get very far into the story? Let’s see a show of hands. Who peeks like Mary Anne? Who doesn’t?
In this morning’s gospel lesson from Luke, we hear the parable of a woman who was widowed and the judge. And right in the very first sentence, the gospel writer inserts an editorial comment that essentially gives the ending away. Our reading starts off: “Jesus told the disciples a parable on the necessity of praying always and not losing heart.” So, one might wonder why we should go any further if we already know the ending?
It seems to me that it might be easy to miss the point of today’s reading, to hear it as a nice little lesson on prayer and how we need to pray persistently, in the hopes that those prayers would be answered.
Of course, this parable is about God, about how and who God is, and not just a “nice” little lesson about prayer. Jesus uses a creative teaching method of using the opposite of something – or, in this case, the opposite of someone – in order to make a point. For goodness sake, he says, if an unjust, disrespectful judge who’s afraid of nobody and nothing, hears the case of a widowed woman just to avoid getting nagged or embarrassed by her constant pleading, well, then, how much more will God – the God of justice and compassion, the God of the ancient prophets, how much more will that God hear the prayers of God’s own children? Certainly, Jesus is talking about the nature of the God to whom we pray. And yet, why does Luke introduce this story as being about the necessity – our need – to “pray always and not lose heart”? And why does Jesus end this story about the widow finally being heard, even by an unjust judge, not with a neat little closing statement about “hanging in there” and being persistent in our prayers and work for justice, but with a question about the lack of faith among those who are waiting for the fulfillment of the promises of God? Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus talked about faith as small as “a mustard seed.” That’s when Jesus offered the tiny mustard seed to inspire us. And it does. So does the widowed woman, who at the time was small and powerless in a society that structured itself in such a way that women were usually just one man away from destitution. In fact, if we look at the many, many references to widows in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we get a sense of their place in the scheme of things. They are survivors because they had no other choice. They must work around the angles of their society, because its very structure is slanted against them.
And so, they do what they must to ensure not just their own survival, but also the survival of those they love. They cry out from the pages of the Bible for justice and make no mistake about it: God hears their cries. This story about human nature and about the nature of God makes me think about several things. First, I hear Jesus talking – as always – about justice. I hear Jesus talking about prayer. I hear Jesus talking about faith, which he does a lot. It makes you wonder just what faith is exactly. I guess, to be honest, there was a time in my life that I thought faith had to do with believing the right things about God. The faith of our ancestors was handed down to me in creedal statements and religion textbooks, and it was taught in classrooms. Keeping the faith was something we did by guarding a treasure of beliefs and handing them down, intact, and unchanged, in a kind of lockbox, to the next generation of believers. I thought that faith was something that you have in your head, when you believe certain, hopefully correct, statements about God. Many years ago, however, I realized that faith is better described in a very different way: as trust. In Marcus Borg’s book, The Heart of Christianity, the second chapter is entitled, “Faith: The Way of the Heart.” When I re-read it this past week, I thought, “This is exactly what my sermon is about on Sunday!” And right there, in the middle of that chapter, was the illustration that not only helped me with this sermon but reminded me of something that I often need to remember. Marcus Borg does a brilliant job of talking about faith as much more than just believing the correct things in our head. As he says, “you can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.” Instead, Borg speaks of faith as having to do with relationship. With giving your heart and your trust, your radical trust, to God. He draws on the work of Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher, who says that “faith as trust is like floating on a deep ocean. Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.” He even uses the example of teaching a child to swim and trying to get the child to relax in the water, instilling the trust that if they relax, they will float. “Faith as trust,” Borg says, “is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being.” Who was it that taught you how to float, to trust that the buoyancy of the water will hold you up? As a young child, how often was your heart open to trust in the trying of new things? I wonder if it isn’t true that we adults, who often keep going to our heads to figure things out, need to listen to our children to find our way back to the way of the heart.
For the first 40 years of her life, my aunt had never floated in the water. She had never been able to swim. She had never put her face under the water. She was so afraid that she became almost immobilized by the water, but she really wanted to learn how to swim. One summer,
when my cousin was about ten or eleven years old, our families took a vacation at the beach, and there was a pool where we were staying. All of us kids took to the water like little ducks thanks to lots of swimming lessons and exposure to the water.
One afternoon, my cousin and my aunt were the only ones in the water, and she was safely in the shallow end. My cousin, who today is a tall, father of two, was just a little one at that age, and I still recall the story of how he decided that day was the day his mom was going to learn to swim. He had utter confidence in his own ability to teach her to do something that forty years of fear had prevented. “Mom,” he said, “If you close your eyes, hold your breath, and relax, the water will hold you up. Just trust me. It works.” And he showed her how. He floated there, right on top of the water. And so, my aunt gave it a try. And kept trying. And eventually she was able to relax enough that it worked. She floated there, held up by the buoyant water but also by the buoyant hope and confidence – and persistence – of her little teacher who had already gone ahead of his older, more fearful parent and discovered new experiences and new possibilities. Now my aunt can splash back and forth across the pool, put her face under the water, and actually rest on top of the water, knowing it will hold her up. Any fear that once was there is now gone. But she still tells of the day that Todd taught her how to float. And this story reminds me that our children and grandchildren know something we have forgotten; that having faith is about relationship, about trusting in the goodness and reliability of someone or something beyond ourselves. Perhaps it has to do with being small in such a big world. Small, like a mustard seed. Small, like the widowed woman in this story, powerless and yet determined to call the unjust judge to justice. And that brings us back to prayer. You know, there are lots of stories in the Gospels where Jesus heals people and says, “Your faith has made you well.” I don’t think Jesus meant, “You have agreed with certain, correct statements of faith.” No, I think Jesus was talking about relationship, about trust, about radical trust in God’s love and grace. People in the Gospel stories “got” who Jesus was and gave themselves over in trust to God’s goodness and healing power, and it transformed their lives. So, how do we put this together, then? Prayer and justice, faith and trust. I think we press on, in prayer. I think we press on, in faith. I think we continue to strive to imagine and shape a better world, even amid conflicts between people and nations, and anxiety, and economic injustice and uncertainty. I think we stay close to that which is holy and sacred. The Holy One is as close to us as our own breathing, and the beating of our hearts, no matter what happens in our lives. So, as we strive for justice, as we study and learn our statements of faith, and as we say our prayers, let us always feel the presence of God with us, and let us float trustingly on the deep ocean of life…let us feel God’s presence like the melody that accompanies our living…no matter what we face in our lives, let us trust that God is love and that the world will become better as all things are transformed and amazing things unfold before our eyes.
As people of justice and prayer we are called to do this work. Together. With our community. With the world. Let us live on then in faith, hope, and trust…let us pray always, but perhaps, most importantly, may we never lose heart. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Heather Power